myocarditis

The Long Haul, Part 2: What Is Long COVID?

In the 1890s one of the biggest pandemics in recorded history, known then as the “Russian flu”, swept the world and killed one million people (for perspective, that is out of a world population about ¼ of today’s population). That “flu” is now thought to have been a novel coronavirus. Like the current coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, the Russian “flu” was a new human pathogen so few people had any natural immunity to it and it was quite lethal. Not only that, but as the pandemic waned, it left in its wake a global wave of long-lasting neurological problems in the survivors. A similar long-lasting post-acute disease wave followed the next big pandemic, the “Spanish” flu of 1918 (which really was due to the influenza virus). The common symptom following the Spanish flu was lethargy so bad that in Tanganyika (modern-day Tanzania), for example, it caused a famine because people were too debilitated to pick the harvest. Other viral outbreaks, including SARS, MERS, and Ebola, also have been associated with long-term sequelae in survivors. However, today’s long COVID complications are far more common and far more variable than the persistent symptoms following these other viral pandemics. The variety of unrelated long COVID symptoms has flummoxed doctors hard pressed to diagnose and, hence, treat the constellation of chronic problems that appear in each patient.

As I wrote in Part 1 of this series, a wave of what has become known as “long COVID” is emerging in many people who have recovered from the acute disease. A recent review chronicling the effects of long COVID reported that “long haulers” commonly experience fatigue, sleep problems, and joint and muscle pain long after their bodies cleared the virus. Other symptoms range from the mundane to the bizarre: brain fog, shortness of breath, fatigue, tremors, tooth loss, racing heart, glaucoma, and diabetes among others. Long haulers are also at a significantly increased risk of dying months after infection. A large study found that after surviving acute COVID-19, patients had a 59% increased risk of dying within six months after their initial diagnosis. This translates into an extra eight deaths per 1000 patients. Thus, the consequences of the acute disease itself are just the tip of the iceberg.

Because the official definition of the chronic problem is fluid, we are still learning what this new malady is. A UK study published last December simply defined the syndrome as a collection of symptoms lasting for more than 28 days after initial diagnosis. However, another British study as well as Britain’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence vaguely and broadly define long COVID as “signs and symptoms that develop during or after an infection consistent with COVID-19, and that continue for more than 12 weeks and are not explained by an alternative diagnosis”. It does not specify a list of what the symptoms are.

But, there are many. A global survey tallied 205 different symptoms across 10 different organ systems that can persist after COVID infection has cleared, including those affecting the heart, lungs, gastrointestinal system, muscles, and joints. There also are frequent neurological and neuropsychiatric symptoms as highlighted in Part 1 of this series. A sufferer typically has several of these problems at a time (14 different symptoms on average), with the most debilitating usually being one of three: severe breathlessness, fatigue, or “brain fog”. Other common symptoms included compromised function of the lungs, heart, and kidneys sometimes requiring transplantation. There also have been skin rashes, and newly diagnosed diabetes.

What exactly is long COVID? About the only thing we can say with any certitude at this time is that long COVID exists but is not easy to describe, possibly because it really is more than one malady. The only constant between different long COVID patients with different symptoms is that the conditions are a collection of varied symptoms that persist long after the acute disease subsides, which sounds as vague as the British definitions described above. Long COVID clearly represents a new health malady or maladies since it is not generally found in uninfected people, but is common in COVID survivors; yet not all COVID patients experience it. Long COVID can affect any post-COVID patient at any age, but it mostly presents in middle-aged people and seems to slightly prefer women. Even people with asymptomatic CoV-2 infection can have late arising effects that fit the profile of long COVID.  Multiple studies have shown that infected people who do not get acutely ill can still show irregular lung scans, for example. One such study found that nearly 60% of people with asymptomatic infection showed some lung inflammation in CT scans. Other studies have shown that young people with asymptomatic or mild infections can have long lasting cardiac issues, while others show signs of small blood vessel damage.

Some of these symptoms can be similar to other recognized, if not fully understood chronic problems, such as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), which is one of the most common complaints that long haulers have. CFS remains a mystery malady with an unknown cause, but it often follows a viral or bacterial infection. It is, therefore, possible that long-COVID CFS-like problems might be no different from classic CFS. It also is possible that CFS-like long COVID symptoms are not at all related to what is recognized as classic CFS, and they are simply different illnesses with similar symptoms. Time and research will tell.

Broadly speaking, there are three types of long COVID patients, according to one NIH scientist. The first are generally characterized by “exercise intolerance”, meaning they feel out of breath and exhausted from even mild physical activity. The second are characterized by cognitive complaints like brain fog and/or memory problems. The third type experiences problems with the autonomic nervous system, which controls things like heartbeat, breathing and digestion. Patients in this group suffer from symptoms such as heart palpitations and dizziness. Impairments of the autonomic nervous system are known as dysautonomia, which is an umbrella term for a variety of syndromes. Physicians treating long-COVID patients say there has been a marked increase in dysautonomia since the pandemic began. A rehabilitation doctor at Mount Sinai Hospital, in New York, says that roughly 80% of people who show up at his long COVID clinic have dysautonomia of one type or another.

Not only do long COVID patients suffer chronic debilitation, they also are at increased risk of dying. One of the largest studies of Covid-19 “long haulers” found that COVID survivors had a 59% increased risk of dying within six months after contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The excess mortality translates into about 8 extra deaths per 1,000 patients. Thus, the pandemic’s hidden toll is that many patients require readmission, and some die, weeks after the viral infection abates.

What causes long COVID? What causes the myriad of symptoms lumped under the long COVID umbrella are being studied, but it seems that not all are actually caused by the CoV-2 virus. Based on what we have gleaned from observations of a few million long COVID patients around the world, the focus is on three possible biological explanations. One is that long COVID is due to a persistent viral infection. A second possible cause could be an autoimmune disorder. The third possibility is that it is a lingering consequence of tissue damage caused by inflammation during the initial, acute infection.

Supporting the first hypothesis that the infection persists even after COVID disease has passed is that some patients very slowly clear the virus completely. The virus or its remnants persist along with the long lasting symptoms. These patients are not infectious so it could be that they harbor some altered form or fragment of the bug which does not replicate, but is nevertheless making some viral product that their bodies are responding to. This is known to occur with other viruses, including measles, dengue and Ebola. RNA viruses are particularly prone to this phenomenon, and CoV-2 is an RNA virus. Direct proof of this hypothesis is lacking, but pertinent clues abound. A study published recently in Nature showed that some people had traces of CoV-2 proteins in their intestines four months after they had recovered from acute COVID-19. Viral products from CoV-2 have also been found in people’s urine several months after their recovery. All this is circumstantial evidence, to be sure, but viral persistence is consistent with long COVID in certain patients.

The second hypothesis, that long COVID is an autoimmune disease, holds that the virus causes something to go awry with the immune system inciting it to attack some of the body’s own tissues. Some evidence backs this idea, too. The immune system is a complex, tightly regulated machine designed to discriminate between your own cells and foreign entities such as viruses. Sometimes this ability to distinguish self from non-self fails and an immune response is generated to one’s own tissues. Some patients suffering from long COVID have badly behaving macrophages, which are immune cells responsible for gobbling up foreign invaders and displaying them to immune cells inciting them to make antibodies or to kill infected cells. Other long COVID patients exhibit abnormal activation of their B-cells, which churn out antibodies against the pathogen that can sometimes cross-react with the body’s own cells causing complications. Since antibodies circulate for several months after an infection, it makes sense that this could cause problems months after recovery from the disease. Again, this evidence is circumstantial, but consistent with the observations in some long haulers.

The third hypothesis about the cause of long COVID holds that the body’s inflammatory response during the acute illness causes long-term damage to cells and tissues leading to chronic inflammation. This sometimes happens with other viral diseases, but it could be particularly likely with COVID-19 since out-of-control inflammation, caused by a cytokine “storm” is a common hallmark of severe cases of acute illness. One guess is that the inflammation damages parts of the autonomic nervous system, or that the virus might damage the cells that line blood vessels, either by infecting them directly and/or via inflammation from the immune response. This could change the way blood flows to the brain and other organs, and may thus explain the brain fog and other organ failure that is sometimes seen. This too remains circumstantial, but consistent with current observations in certain patients.

Bottom line: Long COVID probably embraces several different chronic conditions with different causes. Studies to investigate each of these possibilities are under way.

We will see.


Long Term Side Effects Of COVID Vaccines

In his nearly 30 years studying vaccines, Paul Goepfert, M.D., director of the Alabama Vaccine Research Clinic at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has never seen any vaccine as effective as the three COVID vaccines — the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, and the adenovirus-based vaccine from Johnson & Johnson that are currently available in the US. He refers to the 90 percent reduction in infections, and 94 percent protection against hospitalization the vaccines confer. 

Despite this undeniable success, most Americans who have not been vaccinated report long-term safety as a major concern. Nearly a quarter of respondents in Gallup surveys in March and April 2021 said they wanted to confirm the vaccine was safe before getting the shot. And 26 percent of respondents in a survey of parents with children ages 12-15 by the Kaiser Family Foundation in April 2021 said they wanted to “wait a while to see how the vaccine is working” before deciding to get their child vaccinated. 

There are several reasons to not worry about such long term consequences of the vaccines. Vaccines are very temporary medicines, making them different from medicines that people take every day, potentially for years, that can have long term safety issues. Further, decades of vaccine history, plus months of data from more than a billion people around the world who have received the current COVID vaccines starting last December, provide powerful real-life proof that there is little chance that any new dangers will arise more than a couple of weeks following the COVID shot. 

Consider the following:

1. Vaccines are eliminated within hours to a couple of days. Unlike many drugs, which are taken daily and chronically, vaccines are generally one (maybe two)-and-done. Medicines you take every day for months or years can cause side effects that only reveal themselves over time. 

Vaccines are designed to deliver a payload that is quickly eliminated by the body. This is particularly true of the mRNA vaccines as I wrote earlier. mRNA is a very unstable molecule that degrades rapidly (within hours) due to ubiquitous enzymes generally known as RNases. So, after a shot, the vaccine lingers just long enough to stimulate an immune reaction, and then the body’s normal mechanisms eliminate it within hours. The only long term effect after the vaccine is eliminated is the immunological memory it leaves behind.

2. Vaccine side effects, if any, show up within hours to a couple of weeks, never longer: No vaccine has ever shown a side effect that appeared more than two months after injection. This is why the FDA requires only two-months of of followup data after injection for Emergency Use Authorization (or six months as an extra precaution for Full Approval).

That is not to say that there have never been safety issues with vaccines. But in each instance, these issues appeared very soon after vaccination. When the oral polio vaccine was first introduced in the US in 1955, it used a crippled form of the polio virus that in very rare cases, about one in 2.4 million recipients, became activated and caused polio. Cases of vaccine-induced polio occurred between one and four weeks after vaccination, none after one month.

In 1976, it was found that in approximately one in 100,000 patients, a vaccine against swine flu was associated with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, in which the immune system attacks the nerves causing temporary paralysis. These cases occurred in the eight weeks after being vaccinated (in contrast the flu itself causes Guillain-Barré Syndrome 17 times more frequently than the vaccine). Eight-weeks is the longest post-vaccine delay for the appearance of a side effect for any vaccine.

3. Real life experience with COVID vaccines: By the time the COVID vaccines were approved for emergency use in the US in December 2020, we already knew what the short-term side effects were from the clinical trials on tens-of-thousands of people. The side effects seen in these studies, and later confirmed in the real-world experience of vaccinating hundreds of millions of people, were mostly simple tolerability issues, like arm pain, temporary fatigue and headache. These side effects occur a day or two after the vaccine and last 24-36 hrs.

As of June 12, 2021, more than 2.33 billion COVID vaccine doses have been administered worldwide, according to the New York Times vaccinations tracker. And as hundreds of millions of people are vaccinated, we can begin to detect the extremely rare side-effects that would not be seen when only tens of thousands of patients had been vaxed. This has not revealed any side effect occurring after two-four weeks following the shot. Thus, the close scrutiny of these hundreds of millions of vaccine recipients make the COVID vaccines perhaps the most studied vaccine in the history of medicine.

We also now know that a few people receiving the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine experienced a clotting disorder known as thrombotic thrombocytopenia. This occurred in just 79 people among more than 20 million people receiving this vaccine in the UK. A smaller number of cases have occurred with Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine as well. These side effects only happened 1-2 weeks following the shot (and clotting problems occur much more frequently following infection). An even rarer side effect, myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle, has been reported in people receiving Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. This effect was found in about one in a million vaccinated people. None of these cases appeared more than a month after the vaccination.

Finally, on July 12, 2021, the FDA announced that in rare cases (100 reports out of 12.8 million shots given in the US), the J&J vaccine might be associated with Guillan-Barré Syndrome. All of these cases appeared about two weeks after injection.

Bottom line: All of this can be boiled down to this: There are no “long term safety issues” with these or any other vaccine. If you don’t have a side effect 2-8 weeks after the injection, you will not have any further vaccine-related problem down the road.

I challenge anyone to name any vaccine that has had side effects more than a few weeks following the shot.

Therefore, it is mind-boggling that people are avoiding COVID vaccines based on an unwarranted hypothetical concern over long term safety, but they are not at all worried about the reality of COVID mortality and the devastation of “long COVID” symptoms seen in 10% of infected people. That is irrational.

Stay tuned:  A multi-post blog series on the “long COVID” or “long haulers” will soon begin in these pages.

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Vaccines And Myocarditis In Young People

Rare cases of inflammation of the heart muscle, or myocarditis, have been found in 1,200 younger people (16-24) after receiving an mRNA vaccine, and this has been used by anti-vaxers to further the hysteria around the vaccine. But, if you talk to a pediatric cardiologist you will learn that we should be much more worried about the disease than the vaccine. There simply is no comparison.

The post-vaccine myocarditis is very mild, has caused no deaths, is easily treated with anti-inflammatory drugs, and quickly goes away without lasting problems. On the other hand, COVID-19 can linger for months, and, as of June 9, has caused ~3000 deaths in young people. Because of this, the American Heart Association and American Academy of Pediatrics continue to strongly recommend vaccination for young people.

Myocarditis in young people is not a new thing, and is usually associated with a viral or bacterial infection. One vaccine against small pox has also been weakly linked to myocarditis. People from puberty through their early 30s are at higher risk for myocarditis, according to the Myocarditis Foundation. Males are affected twice as often as females. Most of these cases are very mild and many times people with myocarditis do not even know they have the problem. The incidence of myocarditis in young people peaks this time of year when the coxsackie virus, which can infect the heart, is more common. This means that an undetermined fraction of post-vaccine myocarditis is likely due to concomitant infection with coxsakie virus and not due to the vaccine.

Bottom line: Post-vaccine myocarditis is much ado about next to nothing. This should not cause one to hesitate getting the vaccine, unless the person has another underlying cardiac problem. The mildness of this rare side effect contrasts with the thousands of young people who have contracted serious COVID-19 and have even succumbed to the infection. While severe morbidity and mortality from COVID-19 is rarer in children and adolescents than in older adults, the number of cases in young people has been steadily rising on a weekly basis according to the CDC. This trend will likely accelerate as the more infectious, and possibly more lethal Delta variant becomes dominant in the US. Since most older adults have been vaccinated, that leaves younger people as available targets for the new virus surge. There is no rational reason for 99.9% of people to not be vaccinated.

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